Those of us who spend a lot of time on airplanes know that whoever fills the next seat is pretty much the luck of the draw. In fact, you rarely know who you're going to sit next to, whether it's on a plane, at a banquet or even in your dentist's waiting room. But one thing's for sure: These people are an important captive audience you shouldn't ignore.
Not that many years ago, I was a networking nerd. I allowed my insecurities--and just plain laziness--to keep me from seeing the potential in every social situation. But I learned from a wise and gracious gentleman that you should always put on your best face because you never know who might be sitting next to you. His take on networking: It's nothing more than orchestration and good manners.
Orchestration implies much more than simply organizing your efforts. It means you've examined all the "instruments" (associations, databases, clubs, social gatherings, personal development, etc.) and blended them in a way that creates profitable results.
Here are a few things to remember when orchestrating your networking performance:
1. Recognize that there is more to networking than greeting people. Develop a step-by-step plan for how you'll build relationships and how you can effectively tell your story.
2. Zero in on specific groups of people. Who are the ideal prospects for your business? Do they live nearby? What activities do they participate in?
3. Determine where you'll be most likely to find your ideal prospects. Do they belong to specific organizations or associations? Do they frequent particular events, performances or recreational facilities?
4. Identify organizations, events, professional groups and social clubs whose members meet your profile characteristics, and get involved. Get to know people, and let them know what you do. Volunteer for committees, attend conferences, and maximize opportunities that might spin off from the formal sessions.
5. Work on your ability to make small talk. Have some prepared topics in mind--current events, sports, vacation plans. And be sure to ask open-ended questions of the other person like "What is it you enjoy most about your work . . . or where you live . . . or your free time?" Remember, too, that having a good conversation depends greatly on being an active, courteous listener.
6. Explore organizations dedicated to business networking. Chambers of commerce, tenant associations and networking clubs offer opportunities for you to meet and greet.
7. Look for partners. Specifically, look for other businesses that complement what you do and might be a good source of referrals.
8. Don't look at networking as a sales opportunity. Instead, look at it as a reconnaissance mission--a chance for you to learn something and enjoy the scenery. There is a proper time and place for sales calls.
9. Make a habit of being patient, polite and friendly to people, whether or not you're in an "orchestrated" setting. One day, I was snapped at by a frazzled airport ticket agent. Instead of getting angry and formulating a counterattack, I said, "You must be exhausted; so many people are flying this weekend." A woman behind me commented on my remark and asked if I was in the clergy. I laughed and told her what I did, and thus began an enjoyable business relationship.
10. Finally, do something constructive with the names and information you've gathered. Stay in touch with the most meaningful contacts.
Referrals, introductions and contacts that simply come by chance are like gifts. Be sure to thank anyone who helps you network. Your ability to be seen as a giver rather than a taker will spread the word that you are someone with whom people want to do business.